UL heads into opener at Iowa State with lots to overcome
UL is 0-13 against Power 5 programs since 2011, the start of the seven-season Mark Hudspeth coaching era.
But will what happen Saturday, even with that in mind, is much bigger than a recent record of futility against the big boys.
After a long spring and summer filled with uncertainty due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, current Ragin’ Cajuns coach Billy Napier started the week off with a realization.
He will end it with his team visiting No. 25 Big 12-member Iowa State on Saturday morning, the opener to third season as head coach of the Ragin’ Cajuns, and another shot at one of those Power 5s.
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“What an incredible offseason it’s been, right?” Napier said last Monday. “You know, I think I probably didn’t get that gut feeling until the last couple days that we’re getting to play ball.
“It’s been a blur.”
Has it ever.
'TONS OF ADVERSITY'
After recording a school-record number of wins in an 11-3 season capped by a LendingTree Bowl victory over Miami (Ohio) of the MAC, UL lost defensive coordinator/inside linebackers coach Ron Roberts and outside linebackers coach/special teams coordinator Matt Powledge to Baylor.
The Cajuns had four non-conference games canceled because of the pandemic, including what was to have been their Sept. 5 season-opener against McNeese and a late-season visit to the Missouri of the SEC, and added three others, including Saturday’s against the Cyclones along with ones at Alabama-Birmingham and against Central Arkansas.
Beyond coronavirus matters, the Cajuns also have had to overcome the death of offensive line assistant coach D.J. Looney due to a heart attack that happened during a team mini-camp workout less than a week before preseason camp opened.
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Team players and coaches marched to bring awareness to issues of social injustice and protest police brutality.
And they spent part of camp preparing for Hurricane Laura, which mostly spared Acadiana but brought devastation to the nearby Lake Charles area, where McNeese is located.
“We’ve had tons of adversity in this offseason – I think Coach Looney passing away probably at the top of that list, if you ask a lot of people on our team, because of the significance of his relationships with our staff and players,” Napier said.
“The hurricane. The social issues our country is dealing with. All of these add up, and I think this (Saturday’s game) is gonna create a great outlet … for lots of people across the country.
“So,” the Cajuns coach added, “we’re excited about the change to play – and we play a really good football team.”
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Iowa State coach Matt Campbell, whose Cyclones live in one of the nation’s latest COVID hotspots, has been dealing with a similar range of feelings relative to upheaval caused by the coronavirus crisis.
“I think from an emotional standpoint presently, there’s a general sense of a calmness to the fact we’re finally getting ready to play,” Campbell said during a conference call Monday.
“And I think in a very chaotic world, to find calmness and some regularity – which I think we’ve been able to find the last couple weeks knowing that we’re working toward something – I think that’s been really joyful, to be honest with you, because prior to that you knew you were working; you just didn’t know what you were working toward.”
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'A HECK OF A FOOTBALL TEAM'
It’s all a lot to overcome, for both sides.
But starting quarterback Levi Lewis, for one, thinks the Cajuns can.
“It’s always distractions here and there,” Lewis said, “but it’s all about who’s gonna focus the most when it’s time to focus … and who’s gonna want it more than the other.”
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Against a team like the Cyclones, however, it may take even more than that.
Napier – who personally is 0-3 against Power 5s in his two seasons at UL, including two losses to Mississippi State and one in 2018 to then-No. 1 Alabama – called Iowa State is “one of the contenders, if not the favorite, to win the Big 12.”
“And certainly a lot of people out there think they’re a final-four contender,” Napier said.
The Hawkeyes – who play what Napier called an “innovative” 3-3-5 defense, and are led by star quarterback Brock Purdy, the 2019 All-Big 12 second team QB behind Heisman Trophy runner-up Jalen Hurts of Oklahoma – actually were picked fourth in the Big 12 preseason media poll behind Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas.
But the Cajun coach’s point is made.
“A heck of a football team,” Napier said. “Veteran team, and it will be a great challenge for ours.”
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That’s especially so considering UL never has knocked off a Top 25 team on the road, and is 1-28 all-time – 0-26 away from home – against ranked programs, with its lone winning coming in 1996 at Cajun Field against then-No. 25 Texas A&M.
Can this be the year things finally change?
Napier is anxious to find out.
“I’m excited to see how much we can get out of this group,” he said.
“You know, it’s been a fun group to coach in a very difficult offseason. I have a blast coaching them, being around them every day. … It’s a special group of young men, and one that, I think, as time goes on here we’re gonna be very proud of.”
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